Ex-Detroit police official gets prison for taking bribe

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – Former Detroit Deputy Police Chief Celia Washington was sentenced to one year and a day in federal prison Wednesday for pocketing a bribe as the city recovered from a widespread corruption scandal involving former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Washington dabbed tears from her eyes after U.S. District Judge David Lawson sentenced her for accepting a $3,000 bribe from Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore in exchange for giving him favorable treatment.

The sentence was half of the 24 months prosecutors sought, calling Washington, 58, a corrupt liar who received a free car and other illegal benefits and failed to accept responsibility. Lawson also ordered Washington to pay a $2,500 fine.

Lawson cited Washington’s generosity and support of others, including her two children who sat in the courtroom gallery with more than 20 other supporters.

Her crimes probably served as a “bittersweet revelation” to those supporters, the judge said, noting the timing of Washington’s bribery conspiracy came soon after Kilpatrick started serving a 28-year federal prison sentence.

“In the wake of a horrible chapter in the city’s history, it seems to me that for those in high positions of authority, it would be incumbent upon them to act like Caesar’s wife and avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety,” the judge said.

The case against Washington was notable because it offered insight into a broader, ongoing investigation that involved politicians at the highest level of city and state politics. Several targets of the investigation, including City Councilman Gabe Leland and former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, are named in a sealed wiretap affidavit obtained by The Detroit News.

The sealed wiretap document was inadvertently filed on the court's public docket by Washington's lawyer. The News obtained a copy before the court resealed the filing.

On Wednesday, Washington disputed the government’s portrayal of her as a liar who failed to take responsibility.

“I have been mischaracterized as a liar, mischaracterized as a schemer, but at the end of the day, I know I could have used a good dose of humility,” Washington told the judge. “I stand before you humbled, but not humiliated. I take full responsibility. Nobody could be more remorseful than I am.”

Washington blamed the bribery on Fiore, who she thought was a friend. She didn’t realize Fiore wanted favorable treatment for his towing companies until after she borrowed money, Washington said.

“I’m not a victim. I was trusting and that was a mistake,” she said.

The sentencing hearing, during which Washington’s lawyer tried to downplay her control of the city’s towing operations, showed how the disgraced chief continued to skirt responsibility, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta said.

“Ms. Washington says it’s someone else’s fault,” the prosecutor said. “She lied over, and over, and over again. At every stage she dodged and weaved and bobbed.”

The sentencing came three months after Washington pleaded guilty, admitting she pocketed a bribe from Fiore.

Fiore also has pleaded guilty for his involvement in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that started in Macomb County and has since spread to Detroit. So far, 20 people have been charged with crimes related to the corruption investigation.

Fiore, 57, of Grosse Pointe Shores, could be sentenced to up to 21 months in federal prison on Aug. 2.

Washington was accused of accepting bribes from Fiore to help with permits and circumvent rules that prohibit a towing company owner from having more than one company in each police district or towing rotation, according to court records.

Washington insists she never influenced the towing rotation or tried to boost Fiore’s towing empire, defense lawyer Arnold Reed said.

Washington sold her office and integrity for a few thousand dollars and lied when confronted by the FBI, prosecutors said.

In February 2016, she accepted $4,000 from Fiore, who was trying to receive favorable treatment before the city issued new towing permits.

"She thought Mr. Fiore was her friend," Reed told the judge. "He was a popular guy but he was a user."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said, "“Former Deputy Police Chief Washington’s corruption was particularly egregious because she was a high-level police official and a licensed attorney at the same time.

Wiretaps show Washington was trying to help Fiore, asking the towing mogul to send emails to her personal address, not her police account.

A Fiore relative sent Washington an email in May 2016 regarding four towing companies controlled by the mogul. The companies included Boulevard & Trumbull towing.

The email asked Washington add a total of six companies to the city’s towing rotation, prosecutors said. In one wiretapped call in June 2016, Washington apologized for only managing to add four companies to the rotations.

“I did everything I could,” Washington said.

The mogul and the deputy police chief’s relationship spanned several years.

In approximately 2015, Washington told Fiore she needed a car. Fiore owned a Ford Fusion that was being fixed at a local repair shop and told Washington to look at it.

Washington saw the car and paid $5,000 to the repair shop owner, which Fiore later reimbursed, prosecutors said.

Washington's lawyer said Wednesday the car purchase was mischaracterized. Washington paid for the car with her own money, Reed said.

Washington received free oil changes and about $2,400 worth of free engine repairs from another unnamed tow company owner, who was seeking favorable treatment from the city, prosecutors said.

The tow company owner also gave her a $2,700 loan to buy a home.

“Washington said she has repaid about half of this money,” prosecutors wrote. “Washington also admitted that Fiore paid for the bar tab from her birthday party in 2016, which is estimated to have been about $800.”

Wiretapped conversations counter Washington’s claims that she unknowingly accepted valuable things from someone with ill intent, prosecutors said.

She lied to the FBI when confronted about the illegal benefits in June 2017, prosecutors said.

“Washington could have admitted her criminal conduct,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “Instead, at every turn in the investigation, she lied.”

She also lied when a Detroit Law Department official asked if Washington had ever taken anything of value from Fiore.

“Sadly, over the past decade, the citizens of Detroit have been front row to public corruption in their city government. From city council to the mayor’s office, to the elected mayor himself, public servants have committed felony corruption offenses. A less-than-substantial sentence for a corrupt deputy chief of the Detroit Police Department would send the wrong message to the community. Washington needs to be punished so that others are deterred from engaging in similar conduct.”

Twitter: @robertsnellnews